Evaluations of In-group Disloyalty

Throughout our lives it is all but inevitable that we will become part of several groups. These groups that we belong to, called “in-groups” can be anything from an athletic team, families, physical traits like eye color, or student. The groups that you are in are often considered part of your identity and how you navigate them is part of how you express that identity. Different in-groups require different commitments and have their own sets of rules. Many groups will police these rules and, depending on the type of group it is, will have some form of consequence for breaking those rules.

In his study Hank Rothgerber examined how the different ruling characteristics of an in-group influence how the members view a disloyalty or betrayal. Specifically, Rothgerber focused on three traits that would make the groups the most vulnerable to disloyalty and its consequences: group size, moral commitment, and sacrifice. Groups that are smaller in size, are motivated by a moral concern, or require a lot of effort or sacrifice to maintain membership are determined to be the most impacted by disloyalty.

To test this and to examine how strongly the groups would react to a betrayal, Rothgerber chose to do two studies with vegans, vegetarians for health reasons, and vegetarians for ethical reasons. It was predicted that the vegans would judge disloyal members most severely, due to the small size of the in-group, ethical concerns (many vegans choose to limit their diets to only non-animal products because they view animals as having similar emotional capacity as humans), and the large sacrifice that the members make in limiting their diet to such a large extent. Vegetarians for ethical reasons was predicted to be the second most severe in its judgment because the disloyalty undermines their message and gives a sense of inconsistency.

Over the course of the study, the participants were asked to rate how bad it would be if a member of one of the in-groups were to eat meat. This was asked in a survey asking about eating habits and motives amongst other questions so that the participant was not solely focused on that question. As Rothgeber expected, the vegans did rate the disloyalty the most harshly, especially when another vegan committed the disloyalty. The study also included another variable: if the violator was in public or private. This gives us information of the reasoning behind the harsh views of the disloyalty. Often times the violation was rated more severely when the violation was done in public. This could be because this disloyalty affects the image and message that the group is trying to send.

These results indicate that the more vulnerable a group is to the consequences of disloyalty, the smaller, more motivated by ethics, and the more sacrifice that is required, the more severely the in-group members will rate a disloyalty, especially when the disloyalty was in public. This indicates that they in-groups are more concerned with the message that the betrayal is portraying rather than the actual act.

For small groups, a member violate the group’s rules would be much more likely to defect and leave the group which would disproportionately impact the group. If too many people defect the group could cense to exist so any member who is disloyal is a threat to the group. Additionally, the loss of members means the loss of support in the group. Because people tend to want to feel like they are in solidarity and not alone, this could pose a significant problem for small groups. In-groups that are motivated by morals are vulnerable because an act that goes against the group by a group member creates a discontinuity in the message that the group is trying to send. This means that a group member isn’t “practicing what they preach” and that does not encourage others to put any stock in the group’s message. Similar to the issue that the small in-groups face, the problem that a in-group requiring more sacrifice faces is that when one individual in the group partakes in a disloyal act, other members are more likely to also take part in that action which is a threat to maintaining members and recruiting new members.


Rothgerber, H. (2014). Evaluation of ingroup disloyalty within a multigroup context. Social Psychology, 45(5), 382-390. doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000196

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